Allah the almighty has stressed the need for upholding the institution of Zakaat repeatedly. In fact, wherever Quran has made a mention of the Salaat there is a mention of Zakaat as well. This speaks volumes about the importance of Zakaat. On first Ramadan, in the second month of Hijra, Zakaat was made obligatory on wealthy Muslims. Literally it means purification. This is why some scholars say that Zakaat purifies wealth.
Paying Zakaat is an obligation. Some people have compared it to a sort of tax, which wealthy Muslims are supposed to pay for the welfare of a people mentioned in the Quran. However, some scholars say it is not tax but contribution for the welfare of the poor. These include the poor, the destitute, the widows, the orphans, a traveller who has no means to sustain himself, those in the way of Allah, those in debt, those whose hearts have been made inclined to the truth, for ransoming of captives and officials over them. The law with regard to this class has ceased to operate.
The Zakaat cannot be paid to the tribe of Hashim (even now the descendants cannot take Zakaat), their slaves and servants also cannot receive it as long as they are in the services of the Hashims, polytheists (whether bound by treaty or not), husband to wife (according to Abu Hanifa), parents, however, high in order, sons and daughters, however, low in the order. Zakaat cannot be paid to an Imam, for construction of a mosque, burial and expenses of the deceased. It cannot be utilised for construction of any building (not even Dar-ul- ulooms and orphanages), although it can be spent on books for orphans and the poor, their uniform, food, etc.
Zakaat is to be given on money, wealth, etc., which the owner did not spend for one year. For example if a person has one lakh rupees in the month of Ramadan and if he does not spend it until the next Ramadan, he has to pay Zakaat. If the amount is spent before Ramadan no Zakaat has to be paid. “Whoever acquires wealth, no Zakaat therein until a year passes over it”(Al Tirmidhi).
A Muslim, therefore, has to keep watch. The moment the hoarded wealth completes one year, Zakaat becomes due and must be paid without delay. If it becomes due in the month of Rajab, it must be paid immediately in the same month. One should not wait for Ramadan. Ulema have fixed Rs 25 for every one thousand rupees. Therefore, if a person has one lakh rupees and does not spend it for one year, he must pay Rs 2,500 as Zakaat as and when it becomes due. Similarly the cost of the ornaments must be assessed and Zakaat calculated and paid accordingly.
Notwithstanding the importance of the institution of Zakaat, most of the Muslims do not pay it for one reason or the other. They give more preference to performing Hajj. Yes, performing Hajj is also an obligation for those who can afford it. But the Hajj is the fifth pillar. To put it plainly, Hajj comes after Zakaat. Those who can afford Hajj must be in a position to pay Zakkat. And, if they do not pay it and prefer to perform Hajj, they are ignoring a more important institution and shall be questioned about it on the day of judgement.